Sunday, May 24, 2015

In Memoriam


 
 
Down the street from my house is Greendale Cemetery, bucolic despite its somber purpose.  Huge arched gates frame the entrance.  The meandering roads and paths that travel the gentle hills were once meant for horse and carriage and so, are narrow and graceful, barely wide enough for the landscaping truck to fit.  Graves go back to the 1700’s; names on many stones are worn away, and still other, recent ones, have photographs imbedded in the stones, the living faces of the now dead.  There are the children’s stones, carved angels and lambs sleeping on top; a stone motorcycle; a lion clutching a globe; and married couples interred together, husbands and wives often dying within days or months of each other as if they couldn’t bear to be apart.  And because it is the season, the purple and pink rhododendrons are in explosive bloom, and trees, some as old as three hundred years, offer wide canopies of shade.  It is an exquisitely peaceful place to walk—which is what I’ve been doing there for the past couple of days.
Memorial Day weekend—all the veterans’ graves bear American flags.  As I walk, I find myself drawn to these graves, reading the names, noting the marker in the ground that denotes which war that soldier fought in.  Revolutionary War veterans, Civil War veterans—one soldier who died at Gettysburg, WWI and WWII veterans, and Korea and Vietnam.  Normally, I wouldn’t spend so much times giving honor, normally I would quickly walk the loops, intent on exercise, normally I wouldn’t find myself tearing up by the grave of a stranger who had died in battle.  But I’m already feeling a bit fragile this Memorial Weekend, my sadness close to the surface.

My kids are with my ex-husband at his family member’s wedding.  A wedding that I imagined myself at when we received news of the engagement a year ago.  All year, whenever I imagined May, I imagined the wedding.  Now, of course, I am in my new home, alone, and not there with them.  I’ve been avoiding Facebook all weekend because friends and relatives of my ex-husband have been posting pictures of the wedding and reception.  Most painful, are the pictures my ex-husband posts of himself with our kids, all dressed up and beautiful and there without me.  Pictures of the wedding reopen the wounds I’ve been trying to close these past six months because they remind me of my own wedding, and those very same people who attended our celebration.  And I am reminded of the death of my dream, our dream that began with such surety and hope.
Much like the feeling I get as I walk through the cemetery surrounded by thousands of people who were like me: full of hope for the future and buoyant determination and a belief that they were doing the absolute right thing.  A marriage doesn’t simply die on the day divorce papers are signed.  Dreams are slow to recede.  All those couples buried together, so many stones reading, “Joined in eternity.”  It stops my heart because I wonder and fear: Will I be buried alone?  This isn’t meant to be maudlin—in a way, my grief commemorates the life that once was.  Much like the flags and markers beside the veterans’ stones.      

Thursday, March 26, 2015

No Shortcuts



There’s this short-cut road I take to school when the snow melts, a dirt road maybe a mile long.  When I drive down this road, my concentration washes out, maybe it’s the bland, brown ground or the long tunnel of trees, but I drive without really paying attention which is a terrible mistake; this road, because it is dirt and because it has just been winter, is riddled with crater-sized potholes that can take out my undercarriage.  And it often feels like they do.  I need to be driving with the skill of Mario Andretti, not some addled, Sunbelt retiree.

But this is what my post-divorce emotional attunement—or mis-attunement--feels like.  A kind of disaffection or disconnection from my own feelings.  All those potholes riddling my insides after the brutal winter and I just want to drive right over them in blithe obliviousness.  Though of course, it is more than just obliviousness, isn’t it.  It is holding the heart at bay.

There are things you do when you’re alone that you didn’t have to do when you were together.  For me, that is dinnertime cooking, aka mechanized cooking.  My ex-husband is a splendid cook, naturally gifted.  And we had an often shared rhythm: I would help where I could, but mostly, I would watch, hand him things, and keep up the chatter that focused on the comings and goings of the days, about our kids, about the small, what might seem inconsequential victories of our lives.  And then we’d eat, together.  (Yes, this ritual had been badly damaged for a time by my eating disorder, but it was rescued.)  Alone?  I’m a tortured, neophyte cook, needing the steps of a recipe.  I make a big batch of something—soup, stew, chili—at the beginning of the week so I don’t have to think about it again until the end—and then  eat it every day, microwaving it over and over, feeling its repetitive tyranny over me by Day 3, which also by this fact loses its flavor.  Little pleasure, no conversation.  Just driving over the potholes.

It is difficult to simultaneously come back to life and to my beating broken heart.  Part of me is trying to be Marlo Thomas in “That Girl,” new life, new career, striking out on my own with a brave, independent front, trying to say “yes” to what the universe is offering to me.  The other part of me is still reeling from loss and betrayal and the end of the dream.  Sometimes I still believe that I am that twenty-four year old girl, because I was a girl, wearing the long flowy dress, standing beside the stone wall overlooking the port of Hydra in Greece saying “yes” to C..  It feels so close and all still so possible, and all the intervening years, the ones where things went wrong, anyway, so distant.  And even now, after all the pain that has transpired, I want to call him to talk about the losses and gains of the day, about the hurts and the joys, about him and me, about our kids.  But I don’t.  I can’t.  Because I am paying attention now to feeling and this is supposed to hurt and it’s not supposed to be easy.  My heart is supposed to break and he can’t put it back together for me anymore.  Only I can do that. 

 

Friday, January 2, 2015

What's In A Name?




What’s in a name?  An assembly of letters which identify me as me and not you.  Me as “Kerry” and not “George.”  It gives sharp edges to an otherwise malleable body.  And yet, when I say my own name over and over and over—Kerry-Kerry-Kerry-Kerry-Kerry—I hardly know myself. 
I’ve been given many names.  Kerry Beth at birth.  I never felt like myself, if that makes any sense.  Especially the “Beth.”  I used to think Kerry Beth sounded like some white-gloved Southern Miss, or the opposite, a pregnant-at-sixteen-in-the-trailer KerryBethAnneMarieJoBob.  I was also Kerry-Berry-Bo-Berry-Banana-Bana-Bo-Berry-Fi-Fi-Fo-Ferry-Berry!  And nobody could every spell Kerry.  I was either Carrie or Keri or Kari.  Why couldn’t I be Lauren, which suggested a perfect canter on the back of a thoroughbred and exact elocution instead of my clumsy gait and pell-mell rush of words? 

Kerry the Kissing Girl.  Another one of my names, given in kindergarten because I liked to chase boys up and down the schoolbus trying to kiss them square on the lips.  I was never successful but apparently kept up my attempts long enough to earn the romantic moniker.  What I remember are the high-pitched squeals of the others girls as I passed them in my dash down the aisle in pursuit of my quarry.  I think the squeals were more “eew” than in solidarity, though.
Krazy Kerry.  The beginning of some of the Bipolar highs.  A nickname given in elementary school in the moments when I couldn’t calm down, laughing too hard, pushing the edges too far, unable to rein myself back in.

N the Devil.  Also an elementary school name, in keeping with above, albeit with swagger. 
Lady of the Lake.  A college nickname.  This lovely one bestowed upon me after I jumped into a frigid campus lake in a drunken suicide attempt one November.  The name stuck for three years.  Men—boys, really—called me that to my face, with cruel intention.  It was meant to humiliate and shame me.  And it did.

KNB.  My only name of choice.  Through marriage.  By love.  It was a way to shed all that old history, the accumulation of ghost names and become my own chosen self.  It was a way to link myself to another person, to create a bond through a name, to announce to the world that I had chosen and was chosen, feminism for once be damned.  I loved getting my new Social Security Card and Driver’s License, with this new name, and inventing a new signature—what would I look like, what would my mark be on the page?
And then in etymology, my name became Dark New City on the Hill.  Evocative, mysterious, capable of great power.  No passive Lady of the Lake.

And playful.  KNB could transform into Curry Navel Bacon.  A manic culinary wonder.
KNB was part of a whole.  Was golden coupled.  Had gone forth and multipled even. 

And now it had come undone.
KNB, once again.  What does it mean to return to a name once thought given up for good?  People ask for my name, and I keep slipping, saying “B,” and then have to correct myself, or don’t, just letting it go, letting myself be B, still, while also now N.  Or I write “B,” meaning “N,” on a check and have to Void it out and start again.  And then there’s the matter of a signature—I don’t have one, not a reliable one yet.  It changes every time I sign my new old name.

The strangest, saddest moment was receiving a check from C. a few days ago.  He addressed it to me.  Me: “KBN.”  The me that is in days no longer his wife.  The me that now carries the name of the person he met all those years before we married.
And then I think maybe it’s high time to finally meet this gal who has been hiding behind the K and the B and the N after all these years.  It is the name that I chose this time around.

         

 

  

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Half of a Holiday


 
 
The first Christmas a week away from being divorced.  I don’t think I could have planned the convergence of these two events any better.  It sounds like the beginning of some really awful chick flick where the protagonist is drunk on Baileys and eggnog and Peppermint Schnapps, bemoaning the end of all that is good, all that is possible, before she throws up all over her best friend and her favorite shoes, and maybe her fluffy white dog, too.  Thankfully, I’m almost four years sober and my favorite beverage, à la Gilmore Girls, is coffee, and my best friends only have to put up with my occasional descent into “woe is me” and I don’t own any fluffy white anything unless you count my daughter’s super soft, white throw blanket, which is hers and hers alone.

But that doesn’t mean this has been an easy Christmas.  I’ve been calling it my Half of a Holiday.  It started with the division of the Christmas ornaments on Thanksgiving.  They were still all over at C’s house in the basement waiting for us to split them up.  All the ornaments we’d collected together, as a married couple over the twenty years together.  The cheap toy soldiers bought when we were graduate students from the dollar store in Houston that decorated our tiny first tree that lasted miraculously all these many years.  The glass “Baby’s First Christmas” tree for Sophia.  The black lab for April, our first beloved dog who died several years back.  Ornaments the kids made for us in their preschool years.  An angel Sophia made as a tree topper.  How to divide any of them?  How to take one and not the other?  We sat in the livingroom, with the ornaments in piles—Sophia’s handmade ones; Alexander’s handmade ones; ones we’d been given; ones we’d bought—and just started taking turns choosing.  My heart splitting open with each choice.  I want a Sophia and an Alexander and a Sophia and an Alexander.  Not an either or.  And then it was over and our piles were half piles and my tree was half full.

Under the tree was half full, too as I was working with half the funds for Christmas shopping that I normally would be working with.  This Christmas has been a lesson in humility and economy but also gratitude.  There were moments when I would feel ashamed that I couldn’t pile up the presents beneath the tree for my kids.  What’s the word?  Plenty.  The other word?  Abundance.  Visual abundance.  I wanted them to be bowled over by all the gifts like they have been used to every year.  The pile-up of presents.  I wanted them to know that I could give them everything they wanted.  That I could do it on my own.  (Really, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.  Pride.)  And of course, I imagine if you added the gifts their father was going to give them to the gifts I was giving them, they would have that abundance.  But my gifts on their own?  They didn’t look like much beneath the tree and all I could see was lack.  And I was sure they would see it, too: Mom was only half capable.  Mom could only give half of a Christmas. But when Sophia and Alexander came over and saw the tree all lit up, and saw the presents beneath the tree, they didn’t see anything missing.  Instead, all they could say, over and over for two days straight, was, “There’s so many presents!  I can’t wait to open them!  I can’t believe they’re all for us!”  Where I saw not enough, they saw more than enough.

And then of course, it was half a holiday because I was only with my children for half the holiday.  This is how it will go from now on and on and on.  And I should be grateful as this is the easy year since C and I divided Christmas in half—I had the kids a few days up to and including Christmas Eve, he had them Christmas Day and the next several days.  It was not just a matter of decorating my house by myself, putting up the tree and the lights, hanging the garland up the staircase, it was the moments that revealed absence that were most painful.  And not even just the absence of the kids on the days and nights when they were with C., but the absence of C., the absence of the presence of marriage, of union, of there being four.  When I was hanging up the stockings and there were only three hanging from bannister.  Christmas cards arriving in the mail addressed only to me.  Attending holiday parties alone and everyone else at the parties in pairs.  Buying gifts for the kids, and in my excitement, having no one to show them to before wrapping them up.  Sitting in front of the tree late at night wishing there was someone I could talk to about the year that had passed.  Feeling only half of me was there.

So how did I fill up my empty half?  C. took the kids to Wisconsin for those days after Christmas.  I wasn’t going to sit in front of that tree alone wishing for what wasn’t anymore.  So I went to my family in New York for Broadway fun, shopping, movies, mani/pedi, laughter, connection, marathon talks, and a fancy haircut to boot.  A full New Year’s order.   

 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Truth About Scars


 
 
I was sitting on my daughter Sophia’s bed and we were having our nightly chat, running through the day, giggling over silly things that happened at school, wondering whether the beginnings of puberty might be as angst-ridden for her as it was for me, and regarding the divorce, that yes, it was absolutely okay to feel sad and angry and confused. 
And then Sophia ran her fingertip up my forearm and said, “How did you really get all these scars?  It wasn’t really from a cat, was it?”

The cat.  The crazy, mysterious unnamed cat had been my demonic perpetrator every time Sophia had asked about the cross-hatching of scars on my forearms.  Of course, no cat could have methodically clawed me in such a brutal, linear fashion.  More like the regular rings of a tree or the centimeter marks ticking up a ruler than any irrational, frenzied clawing. 
But because Sophia has herself been scratched up by her own kitties.  Because Sophia has always been so young and innocent and believed that I would tell her the truth.  Because Sophia wouldn’t know that it would be conceivable to pick up a razor, a shard of glass, or a knife and cut into your very own self why would she think my scars come from anywhere else?

“Well,” I said, “no.”  She was old enough, now, to know.  I live in truth and my relationship with my daughter is one based in appropriate truth.  If I did the calculations, by the time I was her age, twelve, I was already edging toward my descent into depression and two years away from my first drink and first time cutting.  She needed to know I’d been through it and come out on the other side and that she could come to me if in peril.
Sophia ran her finger over my scars.  “Did you get them from cutting?”

I held my breath.  No.  I couldn’t breathe.  What I was most afraid of—that she would know—and she could see—and I had to get this moment right because so much was riding on it.  She would remember if I would tell her the truth so in the future she could come to me and speak her truth.
“I did,” I said.  “I went through a really hard, long time when I thought that would make me feel better.”

“We learned about it in Health class,” she said.  “But I still don’t understand why someone would cut themselves.  Why did you?”

“Oh honey, it’s hard to explain.  But I’ll try.  When I started out, when I was a teenager, I was really depressed and alone.  And I thought feeling the pain of cutting myself would help me feel better.  Feeling the pain on the outside would make the inside pain feel real.”

“Couldn’t you talk to your parents or friends?”  She leaned her head into my shoulder.  I wrapped my arm around her.
“At the time I didn’t think my parents wanted to hear about how I was really feeling.  They thought if I tried to be happy, I would be happy.  And my friends didn’t really want to hear about how I really felt either.  And after a while, cutting myself became a way of dying a little bit.  Does that help?”

“I just don’t like thinking of you like that.  It was like when you used to go away all the time to the hospital.  I missed you so much.”
We looked at each other, both of us crying.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve been in the hospital?  Almost four years.  My medicine has been working and I’ve been working to stay in a place that is stable which means I get to stay here with you.”
Sophia hugged me and then sat back.  “Remember what you told me about the scar on my eyebrow?  It gives me character.  You just have a lot of character.”      

Monday, November 17, 2014

Lesson Learned Over Microwaved Ziti


 
 
The other night, the kids and I were finishing up dinner—leftover baked ziti.  An uninspired but efficient meal.  I find the daily meal more like the daily grind.  C. was the one who cooked, who took pleasure in the preparation of not one! (for the kids) but two! (for the two of us) evening meals.  I need a recipe hours beforehand, and the ingredients precisely lined up, and a carefully plotted timeline, which is to say, I’m exhausted by the initial pan of baked ziti before I even begin. 
The kids thoughtfully chewed the microwaved ziti and steered the conversation to some voice-changing App Sophia had on her phone which they found hilarious.  Then Alexander sighed, stood up, and walked into the kitchen with his almost-emptied bowl.  He clattered around in the kitchen, the sink turning on and off, then came back to the table and sat down.

“Hey!” I said.  “What did you do with your bowl?”
Alexander turned serious.  “Well, I was thinking about the divorce, and how you no longer have Dad around which means you don’t have a lot of help.  So I decided I needed to take on more responsibility and help out around the house.  So I scraped the rest of my food in the garbage and rinsed out my bowl.”

I wanted to cry.  I wanted to throw myself at him, scoop him up, tell him he didn’t have to worry about being responsible for anything and that this was all on his Dad and me.  I wanted to tell him he was the sweetest boy in the world.  So I did.
“Alexander, I could eat you all up you’re so sweet.  That’s about the nicest thing anyone has said to me in ages.”

He just nodded matter-of-factly and asked to be excused from the table so he could go play his Nintendo DS.
Responsibility.  Divorce thrusts it upon you whether you like it or not.  Sometimes I find myself caught up in panic and fear, I’ll be stopped at a red light or standing in the shower or waiting to pick my kids up at school, any of those small, empty moments can fill with panic and fear that I will be overwhelmed by the single task of this now single’s task that is mine—budgeting money, paying bills, making dinners, planning for a future.  Learning to be responsible—to clear away my own plate which will make an easier life for myself and kids—that is the task at hand.  Just today, I dropped my car off to get snow tires.  This was not an easy decision as snow tires run about $600, money which would be useful in other places during these lean times.  However, since I have to drive back and forth to Erie several times a week now for classes, which means through the horrendous strip of the snowbelt which makes for precarious winter driving, I decided that it was important that I stay alive and on the road so I could make it home and reheat more ziti for my kids.

For twenty years I had a companion beside me off of which to bounce ideas, to offer half of a “yes” or “no,” to build the fence around a life that was ours and then to mend the fence when it was torn.  Now?  I am standing on a wide open plain, and my future feels uncontained and unbridled.  For some reason, however, the opening scene of The Sound of Music keeps flashing in my mind: Julie Andrews (Maria) standing on the top of a green hill, her arms open wide, body turning, taking in the world.  I might be scared, but I’m filled with anticipation at what lies beyond the fenceline.   

  

 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How To Be A Fearless Home-Re-Maker



 
 
“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

                                                -Matsuo Bashō

 

The first week of separation that will lead to divorce.  My legs are wobbly, at times threatening to buckle beneath me, but I have remained upright, breathing steadily, firm in the conviction that while it will be a difficult journey, all will be well.  I have been preparing for this—after all, I survived the dark hell of those years when I tried to die by my craziness, my drinking, and my starvation.  I almost lost my life and all that I loved, but I fought my way back and in doing so, learned that I don’t ever have to allow it to spiral into the abyss again.  All I have to do is be a willing partner with the universe, which seems, by my estimation these days, to be generally benevolent.  Stop trying to be in control, trying to force things into an unnatural direction (aka where I have predetermined they MUST go) and say “yes” to the possible ways my life might unfold instead of  always saying “no” and bucking and thrashing like some cornered wild stallion.  This is how I am trying to view my life inside divorce: instead of seeing it as an overwhelming, out-of-breath disaster, it could be a possibility for my life to unfold in unexpected, remarkable, and yes, hopeful ways 

I am in my new house.  The first time I have lived on my own, in well, forever.  I went from living with my parents, to basically living with my boyfriend in college, to living with C..  Forty-two years of eternal co-habitation, of tuning my antennae into the frequencies of other people—into their desires, their needs, their likes and dislikes.  I don’t mean this to be a criticism, merely a neutral observation.  But this habitual checking-in is a difficult mental habit to break.  It is hard, for instance, to recover what I really like—what I really want for myself for dinner, for new lamps, for a new couch.  What if I make an unwise choice?  How do I choose only for myself and without consultation?  It took me one month to decide upon my new camel-colored, tufted couch because I ran through fifteen possibilities, all varieties of camel-colored, tufted couches,  wavering between one than another then yet another.  How to finally decide without regret?  How to know myself for myself again?

This first week, the kids are with C., and I am in the house living alone, becoming acquainted with myself, learning the rooms of the house, learning how the light casts shadows across the day, learning the ways the bones of the house settle in at night, learning how not to be scared when I wake up at three a.m., and no one, not C., not the kids, is there.  I walk from room to room and think: Here I am, starting my new life.  Here I am walking through my house.  Here I am doing it, owning it, keeping myself together.  Here I am loving myself through this impossible stretch of time.  I try to make that internal voice sound loving and kind, but also a little bit stern, like my CrossFit trainer who tells me that I can add heavier weight to my barbell even when I’m about to cry and fold at the thought of it.  “Kerry,” he says, “you can always take it off if it’s really too heavy.  But I know you.  You’re a strong woman.  You can do this.”  Kind, firm, he doesn’t back down.  I have to try.  And most of the time, he’s right.  I can lift the damn weight.  I had no idea I was capable of such strength.

What I don’t have, right now in the first week alone: C. in his whirlwind of cooking in the kitchen; the companionable silence on the couch as C. and I watch some favorite show on t.v.; pet hair; laundry—one person alone barely creates what four do; the kids’ backpacks and shoes and mess of schoolbooks on the breakfast table; noise, voices, the fullness of other people; being needed every ten minutes to find a book, a sock, a light saber, a Kindle, a Nintendo DS, a Lego piece, to give a hug and a kiss. 

What I have right now in the first week alone: time; time to follow my own schedule; time to go to the gym in the morning; time to finish an editing job; time to finish all my schoolwork for NEXT week; time to go out to dinner with friends three nights in a row; time to write this blog; time to set up house and try to make it home; time to try to cook for myself instead of relying on cereal for dinner; time to listen to the internal barometer instead of hurrying past it: How do I feel?  Am I okay?  Can I be honest? 

Can I be honest.  This is the only way to proceed.  At one point in my life, I lived in a house of lies—I lied about what I ate, what I drank, how I felt, and if I was planning to die.  I don’t lie anymore which is, in part, why I am now living in my house of truth, and while it meant giving up what was comfortable and safe for the unknown and scary, it also meant putting into practice everything that I have been speaking about for the past several years in regards to having to be fearless.  It was time to take the leap and live in truth.  So here I am sitting in my new dining room, as the morning light washes over me, alone but not, for the moment, lonely.  And of course, next week, my kitchen will be filled with backpacks and shoes and a mess of schoolbooks and my house with noise and my kids’ lovely need for hugs and kisses and my search and rescue skills for lost Legos and Kindles.

 

   

 

 

 

 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Camp Fearless



My son, Alexander, went to Sleepaway Camp this week for the very first time.  I agreed to this with some serious hesitation.  It’s not just that he’s eight and never spent a night away from home on his own before, it’s that he absolutely needs to fall asleep with the light on, is deathly afraid of any insect, even the smallest gnat, and is a little OCD about things like icky, sticky things on the floor or sink.  So I wasn’t sure how he was going to handle Lights Out!, or a night spent sleeping under the stars where all manner of creepy crawlies could brush up against him in his sleeping bag, or a shared sink where other kids might inadvertently squirt toothpaste on the ledge.  Hazards, hazards, everywhere and my sweet son full of fears.  I told myself that the camp was only an hour from home so in the event of a disaster (i.e., your son refuses to sleep without a light on and we just can’t accommodate this), I could always dash up to fetch him.

On Sunday, when I dropped him off at his cabin, I helped him make his bed and unpack and then we stood there, eyeing each other.

“Okay,” he said.  “You can go.”

Go?  He wanted me to leave, just like that?  He didn’t want me to stay and help him get acclimated?  Check under the bunk bed for centipedes, check the four corners of the ceiling, and the center, for spiders?

“Really,” he said.  “Go.”  His hug was brief; it told me that he was ready to begin his adventure and didn’t want any lollygagging sentimental mushiness.  It was a hug that told me he might not be afraid of this at all.  I wanted to cry as I left him standing on the porch of his cabin, because I was so proud of him that he was jumping into this week of being away from me, from home, from everything that was familiar and safe on his own, with self-assurance.  When I walked away, I had to keep myself from looking back for him again and again, to let him be.

Two days into the week and I received a letter from Alexander: “I’m having a great time at camp.  I wished you could’ve sent me both weeks.  How are you?  Please write back!  I love you!”  No need to fetch him home.  No hint of any troubled waters.  In fact, according to my son, things were going so well, that he wanted to stay another week!  Which meant: 1. He was sleeping without a light on (something he’d never ever managed to do); 2. He was either wearing a full suit of mosquito netting or he’d somehow, perhaps through the pressure of his peers, realized that full-on terror at the sight of a gnat was a bit silly; and 3. He’d managed to live with the fundamental messiness of a cabin full of boys.  Which really meant he’d faced his fears and walked through them to the other side which was freedom, and in this case, was a week of canoeing and archery and swimming and arts and crafts and camp fires and ghost stories and messing around with a gaggle of eight year old boys.

But Alexander hasn’t been the only one away at Sleepaway Camp.  I’ve been at Camp On My Own, too, for the past 5 ½ weeks with 1 ½ to go while my husband has been away on a teaching gig in Greece.  It’s been the kids and me for all that time, except for the one week that they’re at Sleepaway Camp when it’s just me—or me and the two dogs and two cats.  This is the first time in my entire life that I’ve been on my own for this long.  A ridiculous thing to admit at almost (next week!) 42.  But it’s true.  I left my parents’ house and went off to college where I was in a relationship for 4 years and when that ended, within a week, I met my husband and we pretty much moved in together within a week or two—and that was when I was 22.  Sure, there have been a few days here, a week there, when I’ve been on my own when my husband or I have been traveling, but never this amount of sustained time. 

When I first contemplated being on my own for these 7 weeks, I panicked.  How would I manage the kids and all of the meals and the giant house and its upkeep and all of the animals and their upkeep, not to mention my upkeep by myself?  How would I stay on a stable path?  Listen to the healthy sane voice and not give space to the voice that likes to do me in or lure me over to the dark side, where I believe the worst about myself, believe that I am inadequate, a failure, incapable of living the life I’ve been given?  How would I hand the nights alone, the silence?  Not having another adult—my friend, my constant companion—in the house to talk to, to check-in with across the day? 

This was my dark room, my spiders, my ooze on the floor.  I was filled with fear.

Then it happened.  I kissed my husband goodbye at the airport and he went away.  I got back into the car with the kids and turned around to look at them, and said, “Okay.  Now our adventure begins.”

And it has been an adventure.  There are things I’ve had to do that I would have run to my husband to fix.  An exploding pipe under the sink.  Bats invading my house—I even caught one in a net!  Me!  And even released it outside against a tree where it crawled up and away (thank god). Broke up a fistfight between a bunch of teenage girls.  My car breaking down en route to my grandmother’s funeral on I-80.  Fan belt snapped and tension pulley seized up while I was going 75mph.  But I calmly guided the almost un-steerable car to the side of the road and called AAA—all without dissolving into tears.  Not to mention keeping the house in general working order, keeping all the animals (including an extremely geriatric dog who seems to be on the verge of her 9th life), healthy, including keeping the kids healthy and most importantly happy.

I can do all this and still feel whole in myself.  I haven’t fallen apart because I’ve been alone.  The silence and loneliness haven’t decimated me.  In fact, the opposite has happened.  For the first time in a long time, I get to be the sole decision maker.  I don’t need to check-in or compromise.  I go to bed when I want to, wake up when I need to.  Eat what I like.  Keep a schedule that I like.  Watch what I like on TV, or don’t watch anything at all.  I don’t have to be afraid to be with myself, to be alone with myself because now, as opposed to a few years ago when I was aiming to destroy myself in most any way possible, now, I’m good company.  Of course, I’m looking forward to my husband’s return, his body curled up next to mine on the couch at night in front of the TV. when we watch a movie together, working in the kitchen together on a shared meal, the give and take of conversation, but Camp On My Own has shown me that I, too, can be fearless.   

     

Friday, April 25, 2014

I Don't Shatter Anymore




Once upon a time, I might have thought I was fragile, like a delicate, antique porcelain vase with cracks running through its sides, balanced precariously on the edge of a side table.  Throw in a couple of crazy eight year old boys whooping it up, running circles around the vase, threating to send it crashing to the ground.  How about someone filling the vase with water and jamming it full of flowers, the water and stems pushing against the cracks, pressure building and building from that pretty innocuous bouquet. 
That was me, ready to crash and implode at the slightest bump, the smallest bit of pressure.  And I did, often.  My Bipolar Disorder and Anorexia and drinking were so out of control that everything seemed overwhelming, and I was in and out of the psych hospital, a person unrecognizable to myself, more than twenty times in five years.  Possessed by the furies, if you want to be mythic about it.  In fact, things were so horrifically, desperately, unfathomably out of control, and I was so inexplicably beyond reach of conventional help, that a friend who was an ex-priest elicited the help of a priest and they actually performed an exorcism on me while I was in the psych ward, bible, holy water, rosary beads and all! 

That’s how bad it was: I mean, who has an exorcism?  What tongues was I speaking in?  How fast was my head spinning?  Certainly I don’t believe I was actually possessed by The Devil.  But I do believe I wasn’t myself for those long, insane years.  I was possessed by this crazy other self that now feels so foreign to me—a self that was so intent on self-destruction in any and every way possible.  Now, much of that seems like an incomprehensible, distant, fuzzy dream—which may be the result of all the prescription drugs I’ve take over the course of all these years, or the Electric Shock Treatments I was given which erased much of my memory of those years. 
But it is difficult for me to see myself as the woman who was strapped down in an isolation room with her arms all cut up; or the woman in the hospital medicated to the point of drooling in an attempt to quell her mania; or the woman who had her bathroom locked in the hospital because no one would trust her not to throw up her food.  That seems like another woman, not me.  A woman I can feel compassion for, but a woman who scares me because that can’t have been me—really?

But of course that was me.  I don’t need to remind myself of that—I have scars crosshatched on my arms to prove it.  And here’s the thing: while my past scares the shit out of me it also serves as a warning to me about what could happen again if I become complacent in my recovery.  But my past, too, is a testament to my strength.  I am not fragile.
I am learning to override fragility and its attendant fears and reach for strength and its courage when I watch my son ride his bike.  For the past two years my husband and I have been trying to teach my son to ride his bike—but my son refused, terrified of falling, of speed, of imagining whatever biking demons he dreamed.  Finally, in a firm, concerted effort and force of will, we taught Alexander over the course of a few days last month, and Alexander fell in immediate love with biking, and now insists on biking whenever possible on a nearby trail.  Of course, his skills are still shaky but his courage is insane!  He loves to go fast and bike while standing up.  My instinct is to yell at him to “Slow down!” and “Watch out!” and “Be Careful!” to be the harpy, the killjoy.  And yet, he’s wearing his helmet (something I never had as a kid), and he’s on a paved trail (no cars), so he’s moderately safe—and he’s not fragile!  He’s a kid seizing happiness and feeling courageous and strong.  And I have to let him go.

Watching Alexander, I know having come through my years of possession intact, and in fact, stronger for it, having survived myself, I know that I can survive anything that this life might throw at me.  I don’t shatter.  Not in any way that can’t be put back together again. 

         

Thursday, March 20, 2014

International Day of Happiness: How Will You Be Happy?


 
 


Today, March 20th, the first day of Spring, is also the International Day of Happiness!  Of course, here in Meadville, I woke up to snow, which did not, unusually, impede my own personal happiness index—like the country of Bhutan which has an official National Happiness Index (really! They track and promote happiness!)—because I have decided to use an overabundance of exclamation points today in celebration of this happiness holiday!  A way to push myself out of the gray and into the gratitude. 

How do I feel happy today?  Let me count the ways.  I am happy that the house has grown momentarily silent after the pell-mell rush of the kids off to school.  I am happy that I’m about to practice my headstand—and I’ll achieve liftoff for a few seconds, something I wasn’t able to do even last week.  I’m happy I am continuing my meditation practice; it is a brief, sane spot at the beginning of the day that serves as my anchor.  I’m happy that I’ve managed to maintain stability now for a long, peaceful stretch of time—it brings me hope and joy.  I’m happy that my daughter seems happy in her group of friends and secure in her own self.  I’m happy for my son who has finally started to sleep in his own bed—just a week ago he didn’t believe he could do this and was despairing that he’d be the only kid still unable to sleep in his own room, so this accomplishment is HUGE!  I’m happy for my husband who was just yesterday promoted to Full Professor, a distinction he’s worked long and hard for.  I’m happy that I feel secure in myself, and no longer feel frayed and empty but feel bound and full.  And happy that there’s another load of laundry to fold—all those small—but getting bigger!—socks to match up.  And happy to check-in with my husband mid-day by phone just to see how things are, nothing in particular, just the sound of his voice.  And happy to pick the kids up from school, and listen to their rush of chatter in the backseat, their bickering, too.  And happy to go to my Recovery meeting tonight because it is a recovery meeting and my days keep growing.  And happy to come home after that to the family that’s mine.

How will you be happy today?     

 


Happiness

            --Jane Kenyon

There’s just no accounting for happiness
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day


to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.


No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What I Learned On My Winter Vacation: Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti




Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat: Proper Exercise, Breathing, Diet, Positive Thinking, and Meditation. 

These are the words that greeted me on the welcome sign when I arrived at the ashram in the little boat taxi in the Bahamas a few weeks ago on my solo vacation journey.  Even though it only lasted five days, I still call it a journey because it pushed my boundaries and asked me to grow in ways that longer, month-long trips to Greece or Italy haven’t. 
The last time I was in the Bahamas I was twenty years old, on Spring Break with a bunch of women from college and our primary objectives were to get tan and get drunk.  We alternated our bikinis, along with the beer and rum drinks, but remained devoted to the brilliant sunshine and the college boys on the beach.  On my boat taxi ride in to the ashram, the driver asked if I’d ever been to the Bahamas before, and while I said “yes,” I might have well said, “no,” because I remembered nothing of the island.  On my previous trip, my twenty-four hour buzz obscured the landscape, kept me confined to the designated Spring Break hotels and nightclubs, locked me inside the tunnel vision of alcohol. 

This time?  The ashram forbade alcohol so that made it easy.  And I was almost three years sober which made it even better.  And miraculous.  Because I would not have been able to go on this journey three years previous.  I mean, this was the Caribbean.  And just down the beach from the ashram was The Atlantis where they served all kinds of kitschy alcoholic drinks in coconut shells with umbrellas and swirly straws.  But who needs The Atlantis?  I could have had drinks on the plane.  Or in the airport.  Or back at home when my husband was out walking the dogs.  I could have been drinking all along. 
But I wasn’t.  And I didn’t want to.  Which was why I was in that little boat taxi all by myself in front of the Welcome Sign.  In fact, the ashram’s welcome sign seemed to be the Anti-Spring Break Welcome Sign.  The exact thing to ward off the debauched, the over-inflated, the drunkards, the carousers, and the degenerates.  In fact, it seemed to be a welcome sign that was meant to target all of my own struggles, past and present: over-exercise, anorexia, depression, self-recrimination, and mania.

And had I been inside the dark cocoon of depression and crippling self-doubt, I couldn’t have done this, wouldn’t have stepped off the boat.  But I was ready for adventure, ready to feel uncomfortable, to feel out of place—no that’s no it—to feel out of my place. 
So I walked down the dock, holding my tiny carry-on suitcase, not wanting to drag it, to make any rattling, undue noise.  The ashram full with people—Krishna Das, the Yoga Chant Rock Star was in residence for the weekend—so it felt overwhelming.  I knew, if I wanted to, I could disappear—what IT was telling me to do—“Nobody will want to know you.  You’re just a pretender.  You don’t belong here.”  All my insecurities surfaced.  Funny how even at 41, I could feel like I was 12 again. 

Which meant I had to fight twice as hard to remember it wasn’t the 6th grade anymore, and that I had the power to shape my experience and that I was free of all that old baggage.  I didn’t pack any of that shit in my carry-on—I only packed what was truthful and loving.  Oh yeah, and my yoga mat, too. 

I was ready to do this on my own.  Four hours of chanting every day, starting with a 5:30 am wake up gong; four hours of yoga every day, plus my bonus Meditation Course I’d signed up for because I’d been trying to work meditation into my life unsuccessfully on my own for the past few years and only wound up irritated by my inability to sit still for more than three minutes, at my mind’s seemingly inability to stop cataloguing all the things it would rather be doing than to empty itself and find a quiet spot of NOW, at my body’s inability to stop twitching and itching and yearning to break free from easy pose.  I wanted to find out if it was possible to be taught—in the five days—to move one inch closer to a meditation practice or if I was just a hopeless case of manic monotony.

This is what I discovered on my journey:
Proper Exercise:

Yoga = Asana ≠ Power Yoga: At home, my yoga practice is certainly not power yoga, but it is more closely allied with exercise.  I tend to do yoga on my days in between running as a form of cross training.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the spiritual benefits associated with breathing between the poses, with the symbolism of the poses—reaching for sun, being grounded in the earth, giving myself over in savasana—with the mindfulness that I reap in the practice of yoga.  But if all I did in a class was, say, tree pose and savasana?  I’m not sure I’d continue.  So it came as great surprise to me when the instructors at the ashram kept emphasizing that the yoga/asana classes were one of the primary paths towards a meditation practice.  In fact, the asanas (poses) selected were building blocks for meditation.  Each two hour class was structured in almost exactly the same way, with the same sequence of poses, emphasizing not the more physically aerobic standing sequences (the warriors and lunges) that I’m used to, but more devoted to shoulder stand, fish, bow, wheel, and headstand (my nemesis). 
Initially, I found myself getting frustrated over the quieter pace.  Heck!  I wasn’t even sweating in the Caribbean heat!  But then I realized this was exactly what happened when I sat down in my previous attempts to meditate: I wanted time to speed up; I wanted to be up and moving.  I mean really?  What was the point in sitting down wasting valuable energy when I could be doing something more productive?  So these yoga classes were invaluable.  In a matter of days, I’d return to my more “energetic,” diverse classes, but for the moment, I needed to yield to the NOW and to the mat of the moment.

Breathing:
Outside of the Pranayama (breathing) structured exercises we did at the beginning of the yoga classes, I found myself giving my whole breathing being over during the long formal singing chants we did at dawn and at night that would often last for an hour of longer.  The chanting became almost a regulated heartbeat with a call and response feel, and I would often close my eyes and without really caring whether or not I was getting the words right, I would breathe deeply and sing my part, and feel swept up in the rhythmic tide of it all.  Every now and them, self-consciousness would fall away.

Once, I skipped dawn Satsang (chanting), and went, instead, for a solo walk down the beach.  I was alone in the best way with myself, breathing in the blue waters and the just risen sun.  There was nobody on the beach to see me—so I was nobody—except who I was to myself.  At the moment, I was happy—I didn’t really miss anyone or need anyone or want anyone.  I was content simply as is for the now, breathing in the sun and sea.
Diet:

The basic?  The meals at the ashram were lacto-vegetarian (no meat or eggs), and were delicious and abundant.  Homemade granola, fresh fruit, soups, bean lasagna, zuccinni layer cake, sautéed beets, homemade breads. 
No caffeine.  There was a Starbucks down the beach at The Atlantis that some participants would sneak off to for their morning and afternoon fix (even though we all had to sign an agreement not to imbibe in caffeine, alcohol, or illegal drugs while at the ashram).  It would have been so easy to have followed suit, given my obsession with Lattés.  And perhaps, the me of a few years ago—the me who liked to lie and sneak around, filching drinks of other kinds--would have snuck up the back jungle path to Starbucks rationalizing that it was only coffee.  But now?  I’m an all-in kind of gal, these days.  And one coffee would have ruined my karma.  I would have been a liar, the great pretender, if only to myself.  So fennel tea and water for the five days.

And speaking of diet, I ate like I was ravenous, something I wouldn’t have done on my own a few years ago.  Just three years ago, I was in an Eating Disorders inpatient hospital, refusing to eat, having to have every bite I took monitored.  And now?  Here I was wearing a bikini, not really worrying about how I looked in it, and eating to my stomach and heart’s content.  Which speaks to the next category…
Positive Thinking:

In my meditation Course, we had to come up with a personal mantra that we could use if we got restless (me!) while sitting in meditation.  So I thought about one of the most beautiful things that we bring back with us from Greece: a sea urchin shell.  I thought about how when you’re snorkeling above on the surface and you look down, all you can see are these forbidding creatures carpeting the rocks and sea floor, glittering with their black spines.  Those spines are their best defense, keeping everyone else away.  But then, of course, when they die and those spines fall off, those beautiful round, delicate shells are beneath.  So I thought about sea urchins, when I was thinking about my mantra, and I began to whisper, “Beneath the spines are beauty.”  Because often, I feel like that—my prickly exterior gives way to something delicate and beautiful beneath.  And then as a follow up, I said, “I am joy, I am joy, I am joy.”
Meditation:

Everywhere and all the time.  I practiced and practiced without knowing I was.  At Satsang, yes, of course, while chanting.  But in yoga class while moving through my asanas.  And walking along the beach at dawn.  And while eating, and enjoying the food and being present for the joy of the meal with strangers.
My meditation station.  This is what I was instructed to construct at home.  A formal place to meditate—someplace to hold my gaze and energy.  So I did.  A low shelf on my nightstand that I can sit in front of, and—I do.  I’m up to ten minutes.  On the shelf?  A photo of my children to remind me of why I am part of this world; a picture of the Buddha, for his wisdom and serenity; a clay dragon my daughter made for me when I went to the hospital once—she called it my “healing dragon,” and a sea urchin shell—that thing of beauty.